Mexico — The first Huichol I saw during my fifteen years living in Mexico as a freelance photojournalist was walking the streets of a small Mexican hill town. I was struck first by his gentle gait. Even more, I noticed the elaborately embroidered clothing he was wearing. His white muslin trousers and long-sleeved shirt were embroidered with colorful, intricate nature symbols: deer, eagles, jaguars, flowers, birds. On his head he wore a sombrero woven of palm fronds. From its brim dangled turkey feathers tied in red wool. And under the man’s arm, he carried a yarn painting which he hoped to sell to one of the curio shops in the tourist town.
This first encounter would lead me to an eight-year investigation into the culture and beliefs of the Huichol Indians of Mexico. I would make many trips into the Sierra Madre mountains near the Pacific Ocean, to numerous sites and museums in the state of Jalisco. I would spend hours of research into the archives of the Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City and the records of the Mexican National Indigenous Institute studying the first encounters of anthropologists with the Huicholes in the late 1800s.
The result would be the production of my novel, So Sings the Blue Deer, which is based upon a true experience of the Huichol Indians — their 600 mile pilgrimage from their remote Sierra mountainous homeland into the heart of Mexico City to obtain 20 white-tailed deer from the city zoo in an effort to save the Earth from environmental destruction.
The Huicholes call themselves “the healers.” Isolated high in the Sierra Madre mountains of northwestern Mexico, for centuries they have performed ceremonial rituals they believe heal the Earth and keep nature balanced. The perpetuation of life and the protection of nature’s creations is their time-honored responsibility. The origins of the Huicholes remain clouded. Their own historical recollections, and evidence in common language roots and beliefs, indicates they are related to the Aztecs of ancient Mexico. The Huicholes descended from early hunter-gatherers, and may have been driven high into the Sierra by the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 1500’s.
The Huicholes had no written language. Their traditions, beliefs and history have been passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition by their shamans who rely on “heart memory” and psychic communications with the ancient ancestors to create the text. The shamans sing their messages to the Huichol people in ceremonies that last all night. These messages they have received in the form of dreams or visions conveyed from the gods and sung to the shamans by the deer-spirit Kauyumari.
The singer is always seated facing east. On his right and left sit two assistant shamans who repeat in song each phrase sung by the singer. One long, melodious chant goes from dusk to sunup in this manner. Even the smallest chldren participate and commit the songs’ premises to memory. The singing is accompanied by the thumping on a deerskin drum, the beat mimicking the heartbeat of Mother-Earth.
The Huicholes draw their deities and their belief system from centuries of total immersion in the natural world around them. They believe a universal life force called “kupuri” flows through all nature’s creations — the rocks, the trees, the wind, the animals, man. Their god-spirits are part of their extended family. The Huicholes celebrate a great intimacy with their gods and spend most of their lives honoring them and petitioning them with offerings of art, weaving and song.
Father-Sun, Grandfather-Fire, Young-Mother-Eagle, Great-Grandmother-Growth, Great-Grandfather-Deer-Tail, these are among the nature-spirits that form the pantheon of their eco-religious philosophy. According to tradition, the gods brought votive offerings with them when they emerged from the underworld in the west and set out toward the east. The gods need these art objects for the maintenance of the world, and it is up to the Huicholes to constantly replenish the tokens.
The Huicholes manifest their religious faith in the art offerings they produce: backstrap weavings, beaded masks, prayer bowls, bundles of arrows decorated with feathers which carry the petitioners’ prayers to the ears of the gods in the heavens, and the yarn paintings recognized around the world and displayed in the finest museums and galleries.
The yarn paintings evolved from early offerings made of stone. Called “nierikas”, these stone stone slabs were carved with designs, then the raised ridges were painted with natural dyes made from crushed plants, insects and seeds. The nierika is the opening into the spirit world through which shamans pass in order to communicate with the gods and return with messages for their people.
As outsiders realized the economic potential for sales of Huichol art, they sought to adapt traditional pieces to forms were easily transportable and faster to produce. The stone nierika were replaced with ones made of wood. The wooden boards were spread with beeswax, then left to warm in the sun. All materials must be from the natural world. The artisan would scratch his design into the wax with a sharpened stick. When the wax was warmed and maleable, he would fill in the lines by patiently twisting and coiling colored yarns to create his own cryptic message from the gods which he received from dreams, or from peyote-induced visions during religious episodes.
The animals, colors and symbols of the yarn paintings represent the core of Huichol culture and religion. Each detail has great significance and weaves into the totality of the paintings’ message. Eagle, snake, bird, jaguar, scorpion, turkey and deer — living creatures who, like the Huicholes, know the gods and have a duty to perform.
Corn, flowers, peyote buttons, datura — ephemeral, growing creations of Great-Grandmother-Growth — like man, have a short life on this Earth during which they bear witness to the bounty of nature. Colors are also significant. Red is the color of blood and the rising sun in the east. Black is the represents death and the darkness of the west when the sun sinks into the underworld. Green, the color of growing things, is the vital life force of regeneration of the northern light. Blue symbolizes the wisdom and knowledge that eminates from the south. Yellow is the color of fire, of the sun and the center of man’s spirit. White, the color of the sacred rain clouds that bring life-giving moisture from the ocean, is also the color of the deer’s tail, representative of Great-Grandfather-Deer-Tail. The deer is the incarnation of the gods on earth, the symbol of goodness. To follow the deer means to seek the meaning in one’s own life and follow the path to spiritual completion.
The following yarn paintings are wonderful examples of Huichol storytelling. They come to us through the generosity of Professor Joel Stein, California State University at San Bernandino, California:
KAUYUMARI DREAMS by Jose Benitez Sanchez
“When Kauyumari, the Blue Deer Spirit, first came to this world there was nothing. No sound, no birds, no people, nor wind nor sun, nor rain. Kauyumari had a dream in which he rose to the sky and saw that it was empty. So he began to form the creatures of the earth and of the sky.”
THE GODS SLEEP by Jose Benitez Sanchez
“In the beginning of our world, there was no place for the gods to sleep. Thus they transformed into birds and in this way they found rest on top of plumed muwieri arrows. Grandfather-Fire led the way, followed by Father-Sun and in back, Pariyat the dawn, the East. Their beds were made of feathers.”
THE FLOOD MYTH by Jose Benitez Sanchez
“Our Great-Grandmother-Growth caused the flood in the early times. She told Watakame, the first cultivator to build a canoe, to build a canoe out of wood, and to put in the canoe some of the most important objects and seeds, as well as to take with him a black dog, a black bitch.” Rains came and covered the earth. Great-Grandmother- Growth sat atop the canoe and guided it to a mountaintop where it lodged when the waters receded. The little black dog then transformed into a woman,and she and the cultivator Watakame began the line of man that became the Huichol people.
THE BIRTH OF PEYOTE by Jose Benitez Sanchez
“The child who reigned in Watepuapa, this child became the peyote and then disappeared in a place that has become sacred. The peyote is the collective memory that Kauyumari is working from to slowly bring things into this world from the collective past of Watepuapa. The peyote appears at the very center of the yarn painting, covered by the tails of the sacred hawks, because it is hidden in a secret place, so that it is not so easy to find.” The four flowers represent the sacred collective memory; the four hawks symbolize the four corners of the world.
Peyote visions are considered good luck and dispensed to those deemed worthy by the god-spirits. Peyote, the Huicholes believe, opens the mind to a new way of experiencing the world. For centuries they have made an annual 300-mile pilgrimage to the deserts of San Luis Potosi to harvest peyote and return with it for use in their sacred rituals. It is the hallucinogenic aspect of the plant which accounts for many of the highly stylized and colorful yarn paintings.The Peyote Journey is just one aspect of Huichol culture and tradition under siege by outside forces, forced which threaten the very existence of this fragile people. Recently, military and local authorities have jailed peyoteros and confiscated the peyote they carried.
Ranchers and developers are encroaching on Indian land, building roads and airstrips that will expose the delicate cultural and environmental balance to even more pernicious assault from outsiders. Evangelists preach a few faith, the government implements programs to undermine traditional Huichol beliefs. Poverty, illness, and alcoholism are taking their toll.
The United Nations designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Mountains. A year-long celebration of mountain cultures will be observed in hopes of making the world aware of the precarious state of mountain environments and mountain cultures. The Huicholes illustrate the rich heritage and wisdom that must be preserved to the benefit of world wisdom into the next millennium.
Charmayne McGee is the author of So Sings the Blue Deer